American novelist Thomas Pynchon has a reputation for being a bit of an oddball. He's famous for his reclusion, although he does appear on an episode of The Simpsons as himself, wearing a paper bag over his head because no one knows what he looks like. He is also well known for penning Gravity's Rainbow, a novel so eclectic and baffling that the Pulitzer board gave out no novel prize in 1974 because they didn't want to cop to being unable to understand it. So it makes sense that none other than Paul Thomas Anderson, arguably America's most ambitious director who's still ineligible for AARP benefits, took up the burden of directing and adapting Pynchon's absurdist noir, Inherent Vice, a book many considered to be unadaptable. If you require coherent plot structure, resolution, or anything resembling conventional narrative, you might feel the same way.
To the casual observer, Inherent Vice can justifiably be called a complete mess. It has the lowest critical reception of anything in Anderson's filmography, which also includes the acclaimed Boogie Nights, The Master, and There Will Be Blood. Its messiness comes from its sprawl, a quality in a story that Anderson is quite comfortable with at this point in his career. A multitude of characters (and caricatures) trip their way through Anderson's film, many of which are played by big-name actors like Josh Brolin, Reese Witherspoon, Owen Wilson, Martin Short, and Benicio del Toro. Their purposes in the film are often unclear, although they are never anything but entertaining. This is also only the second time that Anderson has made what can be construed as a comedy, which chiefly comes in the form of sight gags and the wacky, far-out individuals who strut onscreen (significantly, this film takes place in Los Angeles in 1970). At first blush, it feels as though Anderson is uncomfortable in this milieu, having built a career out of ruined father-son relationships and heavy symbolism, neither of which are present here.
The plot can most easily be boiled down to this: private investigator Larry "Doc" Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix, burned out and often unintelligible) is drawn into a conspiracy involving the disappearance of his ex-girlfriend, Shasta (Katherine Waterston), who is now the mistress of high roller real estate mogul named Michael Wolfmann (Eric Roberts). Circling the drain of this mystery are also police Lt. "Bigfoot" Bjornsen (Brolin), saxophone player-turned-FBI snitch Coy Harlingen (Wilson), and gangster Tariq Khalil (Michael K. Williams). The bulk of the film is spent watching Doc as he stumbles between various ne'er-do-wells on the fringes of the crime, fueled by a constant marijuana high and whatever other dope he can scrape together along the way. The story beats come unnaturally, suddenly, and confusingly, keeping the audience off-balance, much in the same way someone with a steady diet of drugs would be.
There is no such thing as a "normal" Anderson film, but the closest he's ever come is his masterpiece, There Will Be Blood, which is still strange and dark in its own right. As a work of Cinema, however, Inherent Vice is still vintage Anderson, replete with all the long takes, swooping camera movement, and brilliant cinematography we've come to expect from him. Like all his previous films, Inherent Vice is shot in 70mm film stock, this time by virtuoso Robert Elswit, who made another great Los Angeles film this year, Nightcrawler, as well as Blood. Even as the story spits and sputters all over the place, everything looks either gorgeous in a grungy way, or just plain gorgeous. For the third time, Anderson has also teamed up with composer Jonny Greenwood, whose more classical work here somehow meshes nicely with the carefully curated soundtrack.
It's for the filmmaking that you go to Anderson's movies, which means that Inherent Vice is going to put off a lot of moviegoers, particularly the ones who don't know the difference between a tracking shot and a swish pan. For the rest of us, though, Inherent Vice is about as good anything out there from 2014, and another notch in Anderson's sterling-buckled belt.